10/23/2014 12:42 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Trust and Whitewater Learning: Let's Not Leave Our Kids on the Riverside

The term Whitewater Learning, coined by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, aptly captures the learning environment urgently needed to engage the natural curiosity of our youth. Imagine a shift from settings that distribute static stocks of knowledge to ones that navigate youth from their core passions through the active creation of new knowledge. Imagine kids engaging with other kids while grappling with hard problems and designing creative solutions to what most interests them. Imagine we collectively designed a learner-centered approach, one in which the learner is networked, both in the traditional and digital sense, to build his or her personal pathway to success.

So what do we need to create this whitewater learning environment given our current conundrum of traditionally designed schools yet digitally dominated world? And what is appropriate for our youth, whom we naturally want to protect? We fear overenthusiastic data surveillance and collection despite the ever-increasing presence of technology, and its data exhaust, in our kids' lives.

Like the counter-weights of a seesaw, we must balance the tension of data restriction and student privacy vis-à-vis education researchers' and commercial developers' desire for comprehensive data. Arguments on the side of data restriction vocalize the need to keep our kids safe, both today and for their yet-to-be unveiled future. Researchers and industry argue that we cannot stay stagnant; we need to learn what works for our kids through data analysis, so that they can build environments to accelerate their whitewater learning journey.

So who is right? And, how do we balance the seesaw? Over the course of one year, a team of diverse and respected minds, who at times sit on opposing sides of the seesaw, struggled to find balance on this critical issue. This group, the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet, grappled with the vision of what it means to be a connected learner in this rapidly evolving world, and what is needed to support the whitewater learning journey. We succeeded in identifying principles for constructing trusted environments that protect youths' safety and privacy online without comprising their ability to learn. The principles include preserving transparency and openness, participation, data stewardship, technology innovation, accountability, and oversight and enforcement.

The members of the Aspen Institute Task Force designed the scaffolding. Now, we ask the community -- parents, teachers, districts, states, policymakers, researchers, and industry -- to come together to operationalize these principles. Can we collectively embrace this challenge? Can we build trust and come into balance for our kids? My hope is that we can get all our youth on the river of whitewater learning. It is yours?